The Squid and the Whale succeeds in showing a family divided in their unity.
The Squid and the Whale, a portrait of a family in the wake of the parents’ divorce, is a terrific dark comedy about struggling against the ties that bind. Over a black screen bearing the movie’s title, we hear the first line, “Mom and me versus you and dad,” and what immediately follows is a doubles game played by the Berkmans, a family of four who are too intellectual for their own good. Weaknesses are sought out and abused from the moment of the family’s introduction. The father, Bernard (Jeff Daniels), says to the older son Walt (Jesse Eisenberg), “If you can, try and hit it at your mother’s backhand; it’s pretty weak.” Walt proceeds to fire at his mother Joan (Laura Linney), taking full advantage of the tip from Bernard–clearly the parent he favors. Walt also picks at his opponent/younger brother Frank’s (Owen Kline) tennis skills, saying, “You gotta get a second serve.” The physical tennis game lasts only a moment, but the tense spirit of the game hangs over the rest of the movie.
In essence the parents represent the squid and whale of the title. Bernard wears a scholarly mane of gray hair and bushy beard which, combined with his inflated ego, matches him to the whale component. In the midst of the separation and Walt and Frank’s burgeoning adolescence, Joan attempts to keep her sons within her embrace, and is a freer spirit than Bernard, more inclined to reach out to others than pick them apart to bolster her own sense of self-worth. This idea of reaching and embracing in tandem with her long, straight red hair lends itself to designating her as the squid of the pair.
Walt and Frank reflect the intertwining of the two forces, and the impact of the parents’ relationship as squid and whale echoes in their own adolescent forays into relationships. Teenage Walt is cold to his girlfriend, pointing out that he wishes she didn’t have so many freckles, and when provided the opportunity to have sex for the first time, lies staring nervously at the ceiling and says, “We should wait,” in the most diplomatic tone he can muster–all is indicative of Bernard’s influence. On the other hand, preteen Frank possesses his mother’s desire to reach out to those he admires, but as a side effect of the family’s turmoil, his way of reaching out is to masturbate and smear his semen on the locker belonging to his crush in what can be seen as a strange, squid-like “inking” ritual.
The Squid and the Whale succeeds in showing a family divided in their unity. For its darkness, it isn’t pessimistic so much as honest. The parents don’t get back together for a saccharine reunion at the end, but that much is clear from the very beginning. The movie is about the organic nature of family, and how as human beings we impact each other and react to each other in the microcosmic petri dish of the family unit. Some chemicals separate, others remain bonded, and no matter what there is usually a resultant third chemical that serves as a strange, hybridized representation of elements from the originals; there is no ignoring the source of these hybrids, for their very existence makes the connection known. The Squid and the Whale shows us that while marriage may not be the tie that binds, the product of a marriage–family–certainly is, for better or for worse.